This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.
Whether you were a fan or a critic of Rush Limbaugh – and there were millions of both – the First Amendment was his touchstone through a nearly four-decade career as conservatism’s most prominent media voice.
The host of “The Rush Limbaugh Show” spoke often of the need to protect individual freedoms and was sharply critical of Americans who could not identify even one of the five freedoms of the First Amendment.
Limbaugh, 70, died Feb. 17 of complications from lung cancer. Among his observations about First Amendment freedoms:
- “Half of Americans don’t know the First Amendment freedoms. It is sad. … All of this is a slow degradation … in education that is just chipping away at the moral and political fabric and the foundation that has always kept the country together.”
- “Look, the only thing the First Amendment does for the press is the same thing it gives everybody else. They can say what they want to say. That is essentially what the First Amendment says for the press like it says it for you and me. It singles them out and references them in terms of their importance, a free and unintimidated, whatever, unattached media … But does not grant them immunity from criticism. … They seem to think that it does.”
Limbaugh frustrated his opponents with a mix of bombastic claims about his influence and self-effacing claims he was just an entertainer: “I like to illustrate absurdity by being absurd.”
In excoriating and satirical attacks on those he opposed, many said he went too far with exaggerated, racist, misogynistic attacks, and by targeting underrepresented communities even as he claimed to give “voice to the voiceless.”
He called advocates for women’s rights “feminazis” and infuriated many with an “AIDS update” on his show that featured the song “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” He pulled the segment weeks after it debuted and – in a rare apology – said it was one of “most regretful things I’ve ever done … making fun of people who were dying long, painful and excruciating deaths.” Still, many accounts noted that he continued to feature homophobic remarks as staples of his programming.
The constant diatribes to his audience of “DittoHeads” were more in keeping with the bitter, insulting character of the “journals of opinion” in America’s late 1700s and early 1800s, than most contemporary radio fare. Limbaugh is credited with helping create today’s ranks of cable TV pundits.
Limbaugh was also a victim of his unrestrained speech. A job as an ESPN football commentator ended in 2003 after he said a quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles got more credit than he deserved because “The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well.” In 2012, some leading advertisers left his show amid a listener boycott after Limbaugh called a Georgetown University law school student a “slut” because she had testified in Congress in favor of requiring contraception coverage in health insurance policies.
By some accounts, Limbaugh figured into the demise of the Federal Communications Commission policy known as the “Fairness Doctrine,” which required equal time for opposing views. In the 1980s and ’90s, a GOP-led FCC largely voided the doctrine, prompted in part by the potential impact on conservative talk radio hosts such as Limbaugh.
As Democrats periodically pushed to reinstate the provisions, Limbaugh vowed “not to go down without a fight” – calling the proposals the “tip of the iceberg” of federal efforts to control free speech. Ironically, now it is conservatives who are suggesting a new form of the Fairness Doctrine be applied to private social media companies, which they see as hostile to right-wing views.
Controversial until the end, Limbaugh told his listeners just days after rioters invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that “There’s a lot of people … conservatives, social media, who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances. I am glad Sam Adams … Thomas Paine … the actual tea party guys … the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.”
To listeners, he was the self-proclaimed “most dangerous man in America,” who satirized political correctness and who spoke as the “doctor of democracy.” To those he attacked, he was a racist and a bigot who used free speech, a golden microphone and a network of hundreds of radio stations to gain political influence and personal wealth.
At the least, Limbaugh had it right about the freedom he used to the maximum: “The First Amendment doesn’t give anybody the right to be heard. People don’t have to listen to you.” By the millions, many Americans did.